It is humbling to realize that in this information age, our human brain still remains such an enigma.
As we spend millions developing increasingly sophisticated supercomputers and expend vast amounts of energy to power our devices, the ever-practical, efficient, and affordable human brain outperforms our cutting-edge technology in many ways. Here are a few.
1. It took 82,944 processors and 40 minutes for a supercomputer to simulate a single second of human brain activity.
In recent years, the K supercomputer has been used by researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Technology Graduate University in Japan and the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany to try to simulate a single second of human brain activity.
The computer at that time could record a network model of 1.73 billion nerve cells (neurons). However, the human brain has about 100 billion neurons. For comparison, the human brain has about as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way.
Although the computer managed to simulate one second of brain activity, it took 40 minutes.
The K supercomputer was the world’s fastest computer until it was overshadowed in 2011 (it was decommissioned in 2019). But in 2014, it could handle 10.51 petaflops per second (petaflop/s), which you can think of as roughly 10,510 trillion calculations per second. As advances in technology advance rapidly, we’ll put this into perspective. In just three years, the supercomputer Tianhe-2 tripled the computing power of K, reaching 33.86 petaflop/s (33,860 trillion calculations per second).
At that time, the graphics unit in an iPhone 5s produced about 0.0000768 petaflop/s. This made the world’s fastest computer around 440,000 times faster than the graphics unit in the iPhone 5s, but still orders of magnitude slower than the human brain.
A study by Martin Hilbert of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, published in the journal Science in 2011, assessed the world’s ability to process information. Hilbert put it this way: “To put our results in perspective, the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that humanity can execute on its general-purpose computers in 2007 is of the same order of magnitude as the maximum number of nerve impulses that can be run one human brain per second.”
2. Your brain is so cheap it’s free.
Rare birth defects aside, we are all born with brains and they fit right into our head! According to Forbes, Tianhe-2 cost about $390 million to build. At peak power, it consumed more than 17.6 megawatts of power, and the computer complex covered about 720 square meters. Some other supercomputers, considered energy efficient, used about 8 megawatts.
For comparison: One megawatt is equal to 1 million watts. A 100 watt lightbulb uses 100 watts as soon as it is turned on, as ‘watts’ refers to the instantaneous power being used. The fastest computer in the world uses as much electricity as 176,000 light bulbs.
Jeff Layton, Ph.D., a Dell enterprise technologist, wrote in a blog post, “These systems are terribly large, expensive, and power hungry.”
Of course, the brain also needs electricity. The energy comes from the food that burns fuel in our modern agricultural system.
3. It is also very convenient.
While the computers we use in daily life can be very useful, some experts have expressed doubts about the usefulness of supercomputers.
The South China Morning Post reported in an article about the Tianhe-2, which is located in China: “Unlike home computers, which can do various tasks, from word processing to gaming and surfing the Internet, supercomputers are built for specific purposes . To use their full computing capabilities, researchers must spend months, if not years, writing or rewriting software code to train the machine to do its job efficiently.”
A senior scientist at the Beijing Data Center, whose name the Post did not identify, said: “The supercomputer bubble is worse than a real estate bubble. A building will be standing decades after it is built, but a computer, no matter how fast it is today, will be garbage in five years.”
4. How does your brain’s bandwidth compare to a modem?
A number of scientists have attempted to narrow down a measure of the processing speed of the human mind. The numbers determined vary depending on the approach. Comparing the bandwidth of a modem to the “bandwidth” of a brain is not an exact science.
First let’s look at how many bits per second (bps) your brain can handle, then let’s look at how many bps an average modem can handle. You can think of it as how long it takes to upload an image over the internet versus how long it takes to process what you see in front of your eyes.
dr Tor Nørretranders, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at Copenhagen Business School, wrote a book called The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size in which he found that the conscious processes about 40 bps while the subconscious mind processes 11 million bps.
The Austrian theoretical physicist Herbert W. Franke states that the human mind can consciously absorb 16 bps while consciously holding about 160 bps in the mind. Interestingly, he notes that this is how the mind can reduce the complexity of any situation to 160 bits.
Fermin Moscoso del Prado Martin, a cognitive psychologist from the Université de Provence in France, found that the human brain can process around 60 bps. Commenting on a Technology Review article about his work, he noted that he did not set an upper limit, meaning he cannot say with certainty that the brain is unable to process beyond 60 bps.
Now let’s look at how fast your household modem is.
One megabit per second (Mbps) equals 1 million bps; Household modems can operate between 50 Mbit/s and several hundred Mbit/s. That’s a million times faster than your conscious mind and at least five times faster than your subconscious. Points one for computers here; they outperform brains in this regard. Of course, so little is known about the subconscious that these numbers are anything but certain.
And even if we take in data relatively slowly, the way we process it is amazing.
5. We learn, we invent.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is making strides in developing computers that are creative. But the most advanced AI is far behind the human brain, as it was even thousands of years ago.
In an article written for MakeUseOf.com, electrical engineer and freelance writer Ryan Dube commented on author Gary Marcus’ statement that “The fundamental difference between computers and the human mind lies in the fundamental organization of memory.”
Dube wrote: “To retrieve data, the computer uses logical storage locations. A human brain, on the other hand, uses cues to remember where information is stored. These clues are other information or reminders associated with the information you need to retrieve.
“This means that the human mind can connect an almost unlimited number of concepts in a multitude of ways, and then sometimes disconnect or recreate connections based on new information. This allows man to push the boundaries of what has already been learned – leading to new art and new inventions that are the hallmark of humanity.”
6. The brain is still poorly understood, and we can yet uncover unfathomable benefits.
National Geographic illustrated the magnitude of the task of accurately mapping the human brain. It reported in its February 2014 issue, entitled “The New Science of the Brain,” that scientists have created a 3-D model of a portion of a mouse brain the size of a grain of salt. To accurately map this tiny part of the mouse brain, they used an electron microscope to image it in 200 sections, each as thick as a human hair. “A human brain visualized at this level of detail would require an amount of data equivalent to all the written material in any library in the world,” wrote National Geographic.
In 2005, researchers at Caltech and UCLA found that only a few of the brain’s 100 billion neurons are used to store information about a specific person, place, or concept. For example, they found that when subjects were shown pictures of actress Jennifer Aniston, a specific neuron in the brain responded. Another neuron was dedicated to actress Halle Berry.